Alex Gangitano and Julia Manchester, The Hill, April 28, 2022
The Biden administration’s move to ban menthol cigarettes has the Black community split, with the ban’s supporters arguing it promotes a healthier lifestyle and its critics arguing it unfairly targets Black Americans and could lead to injustices and policing issues.
The White House has heard from both sides of the debate on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) ban, which could have a major impact on the tobacco industry.
While its proponents say the ban will save lives, opponents warn of its potential impact on Black smokers, who overwhelmingly prefer menthol cigarettes, and include law enforcement members who warn it could put undue pressure on police grappling with higher crime rates.
But questions have also come up over the ties between tobacco companies and the groups and big-name political leaders opposing the ban. The FDA rule could come as early as this week, after President Biden’s FDA had a year to issue proposed product standards to ban menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes and ban all characterizing flavors in cigars.
“It’s not a coincidence that just as the tobacco industry targeted the African American community with its marketing, it has used its money to persuade key members of its community to speak up in its defense. There is a correlation between many of those who have spoken up in defense of the industry and those who have long been supported by RJ Reynolds,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids argues that the ban will have a greater impact on reducing health disparities in the Black community than any other action the administration can take. As does the NAACP, which thinks the ban will help people be healthier.
Both groups, as well as lawmakers that back the ban, point to the significance of the FDA issuing the ban, which would be on manufacturers, retailers and distributors, not on individuals.
But some top leaders have taken a loud stance against moving forward with the ban, including activist Al Sharpton and attorney Ben Crump.
“We have not said we opposed it, what we said was we’d like to see a study, a commission to study how they deal with the unintended consequences before they impose a ban,” Sharpton said in an interview with The Hill.
Eric Garner’s mother, as well as Trayvon Martin’s mother and George Floyd’s brother, penned a letter to the White House last week urging the administration to make an effort to fully comprehend the criminal justice implications the ban could have on the Black community.
All three maintained in the letter to Susan Rice, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, that they “in no way encourage, support or promote smoking.”
“This is how her son got killed,” Sharpton said, referring to Garner’s mother.
“How could anybody ignore interactions between police [and the Black community] if they’re increased because of a ban?” he continued. “If a policeman sees a guy standing on the corner smoking a Kool, he’s asking ‘Where did you get that from?’ and that will lead to interaction.”
Sharpton also suggested that the push to legalize marijuana in the U.S. could directly conflict with the effort to ban menthol cigarettes.
“That puts us in a very awkward position as ministers,” Sharpton said. “Grandma can’t smoke her Kools but Jamal can smoke his weed. That puts us in an awkward kind of position that looks paradoxical.”
Law enforcement officials are also expressing concerns about the ban, arguing that it will result in police and their resources being stretched thin.
Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), who supports the ban, noted there is a “small divide” in the Black community on the issue.
But other Democrats are speaking out against it.
“The Prohibition era with alcohol did not work, and I believe it is government overreach to ban the sale of popular tobacco products,” said Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.).
Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), a member of the CBC, argued against stricter requirements for products preferred by communities of color.